Along the Artisan Cheese Trail

The Artisan Cheese Trail – Central Mass

by Chris Lyons, Mass Cheese Guild Enthusiast Member and Principal at Chris Lyons Communications

This week, accompanied by Cheese Guild   enthusiast member Lynne Viera of Rival Marketing, I “took to the country” to meet a quartet of artisan cheesemakers on their home turf in central Massachusetts.

The day was sunny and warm, the roads scenic and traffic-free, and the feeling of having escaped of our ordinary routine was exhilarating.

Our goals were to take photos for use on the Guild website and Facebook page, to find out how the Guild can better serve the needs of our 24 artisan members as we go forward, and finally, to get a sense of the terroir, people and livestock of that region. Needless to say, tasting some terrific cheese along the way was an unspoken goal.

 First stop: Ruggles Hill in Hardwick, where cheesemaker Tricia Smith’s 1760 farmhouse, surrounded by ancient stone walls, is one of five pristine buildings that comprise her operation.

We were allowed into the cheesemaking room, as clean and odor-free as a medical laboratory, with abundant sunlight for the task at hand. Trish makes nine varieties of goat cheese, each named in homage to the individual goats who supply the raw material: milk.

Interestingly, the heating, cooling, production and storage of goat milk and goat cheese requires huge amounts of electricity, but Trish got a grant to install a bank of solar panels on her tractor garage, and now enjoys a 90% reduction in her energy bills.

 

Trish insisted that we come meet her goats. A quick tour of the separate barns that house the bucks and does showed pampered and affectionate animals who not only live in spotless conditions, but also enjoy classical music and fanned cool air (they dislike extreme heat, said Trish).

We sampled Kay’s Eclipse, an aged, bloomy rind cheese so good I have no words to describe it. Claire’s Mandell Hill was next; a palate pleasing cheese with whispers of dried summer savory, rosemary, French thyme and lavender. Aly’s Eclipse, a four-time American Cheese Society award winner, also left us practically speechless.

Trish sent us each away with a ½ round of a camembert-style cheese called Meg’s Big Sunshine, which benefits from resting at room temperature, and which I devoured within 24 hours of getting it home.

Ruggles Hill cheeses can be purchased at specialty cheese shops like Formaggio and Central Bottle as well as at the Harvard Square Science Center Farmers Market in the summer/fall months on Tuesdays, 12pm-6pm.

After a quick sandwich at Rose 32, a bakery-cafe in “downtown” Hardwick that I cannot recommend highly enough for its award-winning breads and pastries at non-urban prices, we stopped in on Pam and Ray Robinson at Robinson Farm, where raw cow’s milk cheeses rule.

Like all the cheesemakers Lynne and I met that day, the family lives just a few yards away from the cheese barn, where friendly lab-coated Ray was monitoring the temperature of cheese curds being stirred in a steel vat of Robinson Family Swiss. He expected a yield of about 200 lbs. that day, which will be shaped and aged on wooden shelves for 6 to 10 months.

We toured aging rooms of differing temperatures and levels of humidity, including the newest one, constructed with materials designed to withstand cool, damp environments.  Afterwards, Pam offered us a slice of Prescott, an aged Alpine style cheese akin to Comte. Its flavor was deep and satisfying.

The Robinsons’ herd of cows were off in a distant pasture, but we did spot a few months-old calves seeking relief from the mid-afternoon heat in a muddy, shady corner of the field.  Not far away, a trio of hugely pregnant cows munched grass nearby (like humans, cow gestation lasts 9 months). And a good-sized flock of fluffy Hubbard Golden Comet hens frolicked, safe from predators, within their fenced abode.

You can purchase Robinson Farm cheese at their fam and at these locations.

By 3 PM that day, active cheesemaking at Westfield Farm in Hubbardston had wound down. Bob and Debbie Stetson greeted us in their colorful daylily garden, then walked us through two, two-story buildings to see where their wide variety of goat and cow’s milk cheeses are made and aged.

Capri, the best known of their products, comes in close to a dozen flavors including an amazing chocolate version (pair it with blackberry jam, says Lynne), and an intense hickory-smoked block that’s born in a former hospital incubator! There are several blue goat cheeses here too, surface-ripened and aged at a constant 66 degrees for between 10 and 30 days.  

Westfield’s weekly output is significant. The Stetsons “import” their milk from five other farms located within 15 miles of their operation, and they employ 12 to 14 people to keep things moving. Cleaning (so critical to keeping cheese bacteria-free) was going on when we passed thru, as was log-rolling and wrapping of Capri Fresh Herb Cheese.

Like so many folks who get into cheesemaking, Bob is a career-changer who confided that he “just wanted to make something,” so he answered an ad in The Boston Globe, and ended up learning his new vocation from a family looking to retire from the cheese biz and move to Florida. That was back in 1996, and the venture has been both successful and rewarding, says Bob.

Westfield Farm’s wide array of cheeses can be purchased on their website and on their farm and select cheeses are also available at specialty stores and Whole Foods.

Tired, a bit lost, and very thirsty, we at last pulled up to Crystal Brook Farm in Sterling, a picture postcard farm with a red barn and silo, a modest white farmhouse, acres of land, even a field of nodding sunflowers.

We were met by one of two resident dogs, and had some time to enjoy the baby goats who were feeding on fresh hay. Once again we were struck by their affectionate natures and innate curiosity.

Cheesemaker Ann Stabard appeared shortly, bearing a 5-lb. bag of blueberries she’d just picked. Delicious! Thirst-quenching! Yes, it is truly July.

It was 5 PM, time for the twice-daily milking of the 75 goats Ann calls her “ladies.”  With great energy, and a positive vibe that seems to radiate from head to toe, Ann made short shrift of the 90 minute task, while Lynne and I watched in awe.  Ann revealed that she downs a cup of goat milk enriched with blackstrap molasses every morning, convinced that it adds to her stamina. It’s a habit I’m thinking of taking up …

The milking process is mechanized, but the goats seem to enjoy it. Milk from three types of (very pretty) goats, including earless Saanens, black and white Alpines, and toasty-coated La Manchas, are piped into a steel vat, cooled and pasteurized, and created into chevre that comes in 12 flavors from cracked pepper to cranberry-orange. Crystal Brook Farm cheese can be found at farmer’s markets, at The Cheese Shop of Concord, and at the farm, which is open for self-guided tours daily from dawn to dusk.

Even at rush hour, the trip home from Sterling , along Rte. 117, was hassle-free and gave Lynne and I a chance to ruminate over what we’d learned. Does it surprise you to know that we were craving a cold glass of wine? And more cheese!

Stand by for more travelogue. Lynne and I are already plotting our next Artisan Cheese Trail adventure, to visit the cheesemakers of the North  Shore!